Precision Revolution: GPS and the Future of Aerial Warfare

Precision Revolution: GPS and the Future of Aerial Warfare

by Michael Russell Rip

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Strategic Policy Defense and Foreign Affairs
One of the most exciting and profound strategic studies to come along for some time.
June-July, 2002

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Naval Institute Press
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New Edition
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The Precision Revolution
GPS and the Future of Aerial Warfare

By Michael Russell Rip and James M. Hasik

Naval Institute Press

Copyright © 2002 Michael Russell Rip and James M. Hasik.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 1557509735

Chapter One

A Revolution in Progress

The Americans have once again launched a futile and cowardly attack upon us, hiding behind their great technology which God has given them.

Air raid sirens wailed across Baghdad in southern Iraq at 9:25 A.M. on Tuesday, 3 September 1996, as antiaircraft guns began firing from rooftop positions in the Iraqi capital. The action, however, was far to the south. For earlier that morning, twenty-seven American cruise missiles had been launched against fifteen command and control centers and air defense nodes at four locations in southern Iraq, from a standoff distance of up to 805 km (500 mi.). Operation Desert Strike had begun.

    In this attack, 3-4 September 1996, no American warriors entered the airspace, coastal waters, or territory of Iraq, and none were ever in danger of facing opposition. In retaliating for the Iraqi incursion against the Kurdish city of Irbil, U.S. President Bill Clinton risked the combat death of no American soldier, sailor, or aircrew. Operation Desert Strike, launched four and a half years after the end of the 1990-91 Persian Gulf War, was the first battle in history in which a]l the weapons employed were autonomous]y guided to their targets. Fourteen of the missiles were Block-III BGM-109 Tomahawk land-attack missiles (TLAMs) fired by the cruiser USS Shiloh and the destroyer USS Laboon, both positioned in the northern reaches of the Persian Gulf. The remaining thirteen missiles were AGM-86C conventional air launched cruise missiles (CALCMs), launched over the Persian Gulf from two B-52H Stratofortress long-range bombers of the 96th Bombardment Squadron (Barksdale Air Force Base [AFB], Louisiana) flying (with inflight refueling in both directions) from the British base at Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean.

    Each cruise missile was individually guided to its target by navigation and timing signals from the twenty-four-satellite Navstar Global Positioning System (GPS). These satellites, orbiting 20,200 km (12,600 mi.) above Earth, provide these signals to an unlimited number of users on the surface of Earth, on the seas, in the air, and even in low Earth orbit (LEO). Each missile, equipped with a GPS receiver, was able to fix its position in flight to within a few meters, compare this to the location of its target (also in GPS coordinates), and steer the resulting flight path. The accuracy provided by GPS for these aerial strikes is almost unrivaled among armaments technologies. During Operation Desert Strike, U.S. Air Force CALCMs were credited with striking 70 percent of their targets and all of the CALCMs arrived in their respective target areas. Hasty planning and other issues resulted in the CALCMs being used against targets they were not designed to destroy. This was a reason for the limited amount of damage inflicted.

    Operated by the U.S. Air Force, GPS was built as, and is fast becoming, the replacement for nearly all military and commercial radionavigation systems worldwide. GPS—and its Russian counterpart, GLONASS—constitutes the greatest advance in military navigation and guidance ever fielded. GPS provides the technical capacity for armed forces to revolutionize modern warfare with readily available, highly precise sensor, weapon, and logistical systems at all echelons of military organization.


But how can a collection of orbiting radio beacons so upend the conduct of warfare? The answer lies with the centrality of navigation and positioning in modern combat. Geography has long dominated the considerations of the military strategist. To plan a campaign, military commanders must know the locations of their forces and their objectives. To fight, troops must know their own positions and those of their opponents. To supply those forces, logisticians must know the locations of their supplies and the routes to those who need them. Rarely, however, has such information been available in wartime. War planners and leaders have struggled with inadequate information about enemy territory. Ground soldiers have been bewildered by missing road signs, out-of-date maps, and terrain features that greatly resembled those of 20 km past. Mariners have discerned little difference between waves on opposite sides of oceans. Aviators flying above the clouds have struggled to identify targets on the ground below them from friendly forces and noncombatants.

    Until the 1930s, the navigational techniques and technologies needed to solve these problems had progressed little since the Renaissance. Although the Industrial Revolution had brought dramatically improved maps and nautical charts, positioning (knowing one's own location) and navigation (finding the way to the next desired position) still relied on magnetic compasses, sextants, and visual observation. While the state of navigational art languished, industrial advances brought mass production to warfare. The vast expansion of industry in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries provided great quantities of ammunition for military forces to hurl at their enemies over increasing ranges. Without meaningfully accurate guidance technologies, this volume of fire produced the enduring images of decimated cities pockmarked with bomb crater patterns—views resembling a lunar landscape.

    Early radionavigation systems provided substantially improved accuracy, but did not provide round-the-clock precision for military or civil use. The increasing reliability of inertial guidance made possible the development and refinement of ballistic missiles in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. Laser and electro-optical guidance of weapons became operationally significant during the Vietnam War. Advances in autonomous terrain-following systems led to the deployment of cruise missiles in the 1970s. Each of these cycles of innovation in new and more effective weapon systems perturbed the balance of power among nations. Still, technical limitations precluded the use of precision technology from a wide range of navigational applications. Weight and cost further limited the installation of sophisticated electronic systems to a few expensive weapons and platforms.

    In the 1980s, however, the United States and the Soviet Union began to deploy vastly improved global navigation systems: the American Global Positioning System and the Russian (née Soviet) Globalnaya Navigatsionaya Sputnikovaya Sistema (Global Navigation Satellite System). (Since the Navstar GPS system is by far the more widely used system, it is the principal subject of this book. Chapters 3 and 4 discuss the technical details of these analogous systems.)

    The arrival of global navigation technology came none too soon, for within the old regime of manual navigation lay the potential for disaster. In fact, civilian GPS, which includes military use by foreign nations, was born out of a calamity.

    One of the most memorable airliner losses involved the misidentification of an off-course commercial passenger jet as a military reconnaissance aircraft. On the night of 31 August-1 September 1983, 269 people died a violent death when the pilot of a Soviet Su-15 Flagon interceptor shot Korean Air Lines (KAL) Flight 007 (KE 007) out of the sky with two air-to-air missiles off Sakhalin Island. KE 007 had departed Anchorage, Alaska, on the second leg of its New York-to-Seoul flight. In the aftermath of this inexcusable tragedy, it was determined that KE 007 had, in fact, strayed off course into Soviet air space as a result of the time-dependent position degradation of their inertial navigation system (INS).

    As a means of reacting to this tragic outcome at a high point of the cold war, U.S. President Ronald Reagan directed the Department of Defense to release previously classified signal descriptions of their Navstar GPS to the civilian commercial sector so that future transoceanic flights would never again stray off course over such perilous territory (see appendix A). In fact, the Navstar GPS is the first major "cold war" military system to be made available for potentially lucrative civilian applications.

    The loss of KE 007 was almost certainly the result either of faulty navigational equipment, poor navigational precision, or gross lack of discipline by a flight crew. Late in 1983, Reagan authorized the public release of the GPS code structure, guaranteeing Navstar use for international civil transportation free of charge (see appendix A). Civil airliners and other transportation platforms would now have access to GPS signals. Without the drift of an INS, of the variation of a magnetic compass, a GPS readout would be nearly impossible to misread. Tied to an autopilot, a GPS receiver would theoretically never produce the extreme course deviation taken by KE 007. Further, the costs of supporting and replenishing a twenty-four-satellite constellation would be borne for the useful lifetime of the system by the United States government.

    Since then, GPS has been available to civilian users for navigation, position, and time information, and they already far outnumber military users. During the development phase, congressional support for GPS increased as a result of testimony indicating that less-capable positioning/navigation (pos/nav) systems, used by both the civil and military communities, could begin phasing out when GPS became operational.

    GPS signals are continuously available on a worldwide basis, at any altitude and in any weather. To access the system, users need only turn on a GPS receiver (resembling a handheld computer) with the antenna exposed to the sky, like any radio. The simplicity of use and distribution were vital during Navstar's greatest hour, the 1990-91 Persian Gulf War. GPS receivers equipped warships navigating minefields at sea, aircraft bombing targets in Iraq, and tanks finding their way across the trackless Arabian sands. As shall be described in chapter 5, the most valuable use of GPS in Operation Desert Storm may have been its facilitation of the famous "Hail Mary" end-run movement of the Coalition forces around the Iraqi right flank. Although a textbook flanking operation, this rapid and apparently effortless maneuver would not have been possible across such vast and featureless spaces without access to such extremely accurate navigation inside virtually every command vehicle.

    All the while, GPS was not available to every unit; indeed, recent failures attained in its absence have underscored the value of satellite navigation in a host of military and civil applications. So ingrained has GPS become in the military's understanding of operations that navigational disasters are now inevitably followed by the question, "Didn't they have GPS?"

    Lessons learned from the use of GPS in Desert Storm have provided an important basis for present and future peacetime applications in both the military and civilian sectors. Said Stephen Colwell, Global Positioning Satellite Association (GPSA) founder and chairperson, "The unfortunate tragedy of combat in the Middle East could provide the very impetus needed for the world to recognize the important attributes of GPS for peacetime use?

    In light of this revolutionary performance, the Global Positioning System team—the U.S. Air Force, the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, Rockwell International Corporation, and International Business Machines Federal Systems Company—was awarded the 1992 Robert J. Collier Trophy, given annually for the most impressive feat accomplished during the previous year in the field of aerospace in the United States.


The use of GPS and other precision technologies set Operation Desert Storm apart from all previous campaigns. Over a decade ago, military theorists looking forward to the promise of these technologies termed the coming changes in warfighting a "Revolution in Military Affairs," or RMA, a state in which the extreme precision of weapons and sensors would lead to very short, surgical, yet violent mechanized wars. Chapters 6, 7, and 10 explore the possibilities for future warfare that technologies like GPS bring.

    The changes brought by GPS even to the Desert Strike engagement were considerable. For example, the U.S. Navy could have launched older, non-GPS versions of the Tomahawks, but programming these weapons for their targets would have taken weeks. Indeed, in 1993, U.S. Navy ships launched twenty-four non-GPS (Block-II) Tomahawks at the Iraqi military intelligence headquarters complex in Baghdad in retaliation for an alleged assassination plot against former U.S. President George Bush. In that case, timing was not essential, and the U.S. government was able to wait weeks before announcing its allegations. Had the U.S. been forced to wait weeks before Desert Strike, the Iraqi incursion into Kurdistan could well have been forgotten, and an attack weeks later might have appeared gratuitous. The second time around, GPS made possible the immediate execution of American national policy. The seemingly effortless destruction of offending sites was merely a matter of programming their coordinates into a targeting computer, then launching the weapons when ready.

    But how successful was Desert Strike? Although initial reconnaissance satellite imagery and signals intelligence indicated that eleven of the fifteen targets had been destroyed, heavy cloud cover over southern Iraq inhibited attempts to collect the digital imagery. The following day, the United States attacked a number of targets again in a "mop-up operation." Seventeen GPS-assisted Tomahawks were launched at surface-to-air missile batteries, military communications sites, and target-acquisition radars by the destroyers USS Hewitt, Russell, and Laboon, and the submarine USS Jefferson City. A few days later, the Pentagon acknowledged that only 40 percent of the target sites had been directly hit by the mix of forty-four cruise missiles. Further, as impressive as these autonomous weapons were, they remained relatively ineffective against mobile targets, and within days, the Iraqi army was hard at work repairing the damage to its air defense network.

    Only time would tell whether forty-four cruise missiles would deter Saddam Hussein from further belligerence. The cost in missiles alone was some $53 million, and the total marginal cost of the operation very likely approached $100 million (including refuelings for the bombers and other support). Nonetheless, Hussein may have emerged from his confrontation with the U.S. in a stronger position. Just two weeks after the strikes, U.S. Director of Central Intelligence John Deutch told the Senate Intelligence Committee of "a perception of weakened determination of the Coalition to deter Iraqi aggression." The apparent unwillingness of the United States to send its troops in harm's way, but instead dispatch robotic munitions to do its bidding, did little to convince Hussein of a commitment to defending the Kurds. And, in a perverse twist, U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry testified that the overwhelming superiority of American forces may bear the unhealthy side effect of encouraging terrorist attacks as an asymmetric strategy. In the wake of the 25 June 1996 Khobar Barracks truck bombing, which killed nineteen American servicemen, his remarks were resounding. Though a war winner in Desert Storm, GPS was no miracle worker in Desert Strike.

As evidenced by these examples, GPS is rapidly becoming an essential element of the informational infrastructure enabling the rapid prosecution of precision warfare. So far-reaching are the implications of this single navigation and timing technology on international security that the system merits comprehensive study. Thus, the aims of this book are to provide an overview and description of the GPS and its forerunner military navigation technologies, to demonstrate the impact that GPS had upon the Second Gulf War, and to examine the implications of the emerging roles of GPS in present and future military operations. Herein we will explore how much value a few watts of radio energy, spread across the entire planet, can represent on the battlefield.

Excerpted from The Precision Revolution by Michael Russell Rip and James M. Hasik. Copyright © 2002 by Michael Russell Rip and James M. Hasik. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

What People are saying about this

Julian Lake
To their credit the authors discuss the shortcomings as well as the strengths of GPS. This book should be required reading for senior officials in the defense planning, funding development, and procurement cycles.
— Rear Adm. Julian Lake, USN (Ret.), electronic warfare specialist
Benjamin S. Lambeth
Michael Rip and James Hasik have produced a sweeping survey of the technologies of precision navigation and attack and an encyclopedic account of their combat employment throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Authoritatively written, lavishly illustrated, rich in operational and technical detail, and balanced in its treatment of capabilities and limitations, their book offers a major contribution to a more informed understanding of the new and heightened role of air and space systems in modern warfare.
— Benjamin S. Lambeth, Senior staff member, RAND, and author of The Transformation of American Air Power.
Michael Handel
The authors know more about this subject than anyone else outside the intelligence community and have produced a work that is up to snuff and up to date.....I positively recommend it.
— Prof. Michael Handel, Naval War College
Richard P. Hallion
An impressive compilation of how the military came to grips with the precision employment of aerospace weaponry. The authors draw on a variety of sources to tell the story in both an authoritative and entertaining fashion. Sure to be a standard reference.
— Dr. Richard P. Hallion, author of Storm over Iraq

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